Blubber Hollow – Still Making History

The Gallows Hill / Blubber Hollow neighborhood has seen its share of history over the years, but events this last week will highlight annals for decades to come.

Marijuana Dispensary Opens in Blubber Hollow

The opening of the ATG marijuana dispensary in Blubber Hollow at 50 Grove St marks the first retail marijuana shop in “dense” Greater Boston. Two other shops in western MA preceded ATG, but they are too far away from the mega-metropolis that is Boston to matter.

Worries about a traffic apocalypse overtaking Salem turned out to be, not surprisingly,  much ado about nothing. The reservation system put into place kept lines short and crowds of novelty seekers never materialized. More people seemed to be walking to the pot shop than driving. The pleasant weather over the weekend helped. Media reports and official pronouncements from the City of Salem finally noted that commuter rail and bus station is walking distance away. Casual observation noted many people making that walk, tamper-proof ATG bags in hand.

ATG is likely to remain the only dispensary in Greater Boston for considerable time. Last week the Cannabis Control Commission granted final licenses to four more dispensaries, but all in the hinterlands of Massachusetts. Two even along the New York State border, closer to the Hudson Valley than to Massachusetts Bay. When all these open that’ll make eight outside the I-495 beltway, just the Blubber Hollow shop inside the ring, though population distribution of Massachusetts is close to the opposite of that ratio. It’s gonna stay busy!

Though still waiting for media reports to refer to the neighborhood as Blubber Hollow, what with them driving past the Blubber Hollow historical marker right down the street, in the Dunkin Donuts parking lot corner of Goodhue and Bridge Street

Blubber Hollow marker

When news crews picked up their Dunkin did any bother to read the Blubber Hollow sign?

Razing of Salem Oil and Grease buildings

The ATG opening coincided with the onset of razing of the last standing factory in Blubber Hollow, the former Salem Oil and Grease factory at 60 Grove St next door to ATG.

60 Grove St aerial view

Complex of buildings straddling the North River – the former Salem Oil and Grease factory. Note proximity to ATG marijuana shop

Opened in 1912 at the site of the Trask grist mill, Salem Oil & Grease became noted the world over for supplying oil and grease products of all types to tanneries, dozens of which once filled Blubber Hollow. Not only leather oils, but automotive, engine oils and greases, as well as cod and other fish oils. To put the product mix with more erudition, lubricants and emollients of all purposes. All that was missing was a fragrant olive oil.


A page from the 1912 Salem Directory

Salem Oil & Grease fell on hard times with the slow-motion collapse of the tannery industry in the last half of the 20th century. By the turn of the 21st century the plant was abandoned and decrepit, photographs of its ruins on many a blog and Instagram post.

After being closed and desolate for decades, the nearly eight acre property in 2011 was purchased by a consortium of property developers intending to build apartments at the sight. After much design and redesign in 2014 development plans were approved for a 141-apartment complex, provisionally named Legacy Park, to be spread among three four-story apartment buildings. Also included, a whopping, and excessive, 215 parking spaces.

Since 2014 the start-and-stop foibles that seem to afflict every development in Blubber Hollow, hell every project in Salem, held up any further action at Salem Oil & Grease. At the same time as plans were approved the original co-developer backed out, and MRM Project Management of Beverly, owner of the land, had to spend several years seeking a new developer. It didn’t help that in the interim MRM itself had to file for bankruptcy reorganization.

When things finally came together again, the project had to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals for approval of minor changes to the plans. Where before the project was strictly residential, in the new version some office and retail spaces are allotted at the front along Grove Street, opening the site to diverse purposes. In Jan 2018 ZBA finally approved changes to let development proceed.

It took most of the year since to get a demolition team in line, but demolition has now started.


The front office building of Salem Oil & Grease gets crushed

The North River has been covered with an expansive platform to catch debris that slips out of the jaws of the excavator.

Not too far into 2019 the remains of Salem Oil & Grease will be gone, the property vacated.

The site is enormous, comprising nearly eight acres along the North River, between Harmony Grove Road, across from the immense Harmony Grove Cemetery, and Grove Street, wrapping around the ATG marijuana shop. The planned Legacy Park project will consume only four acres, even with the abject number of parking spaces.Legacy Park 50 Grove St The rest will be set as green space, for enjoyment of residents and neighbors alike. It’ll be nice to get the North River corridor cleaned up. Former homeless encampments sprinkle the site, and dumping is common. A brief perambulation this morning along the North River uncovered what could comprise a full living room set: two sofas, a clashing armchair, two bureaus, a chest and a pile of lumber that might once have been a bookcase.

The North River once was highly polluted, the jest being that the type of leather being produced upstream could be inferred by the iridescence of the water downstream. Over the past couple of decades the disgustingly polluted North River has been getting cleaned up, thanks to the efforts of the Salem Sound Coastwatch. Today a Great Blue Heron makes the North River its home base, feeding on the minnows and amphibians that have repopulated the waters, the occasional shopping cart and stuffed bear popping up in the gliding stream aside.

Now if the great bird will only stay still long enough to focus the camera, maybe its portrait will grace this blog, instead of this grainy stock image.Image result for great blue heron stock image



BREAKING: Retail Marijuana Shop to Open in Blubber Hollow Saturday Dec 15

Coming a week earlier than expected, announcement was made today that Alternative Therapies Group will begin selling retail marijuana from its store at 50 Grove St in Blubber Hollow.

But there’s a big catch:

When the retailer opens its doors to customers on Saturday at 9 a.m., it will be only to those who have appointments, according to Chris Edwards, executive director of ATG. “The thought process is that it’s a more densely populated, urban area than the places out west,” Edwards said. “We’re trying to put a governor on that.”

To mitigate traffic concerns, a free shuttle will operate from the T garage at the Salem Depot on Bridge Street and from the little-used city parking lot at 305 Bridge St, but only for those who can confirm they’ve booked an appointment at ATG. People will nonetheless drive anyway despite warnings, so as a service to incoming pot customers a map of nearby parking options is repeated here. ATG to Salem Depot map

It cannot be overstated what a coup this opening will be for Salem, and for the Gallows Hill / Blubber Hollow neighborhood. It’ll be the first marijuana shop in the greater Boston area, at what will prove a fantastic location. Walking distance to the Salem Depot; across the street from Salem Market head shop (28 Goodhue St); two blocks from the Salem Senior Center (401 Bridge St), whose clients have great need for cannabis therapeutics; and two blocks from the nearest pharmacy, Walgreen’s, (59 Boston St) to supply those forgotten essentials.

50 Grove St distant view

ATG at 50 Grove at right; Salem Market straight ahead in North River Apt Bldg; Walgreen’s behind North River bearing right; Senior Center behind North River bearing left.

Perhaps once ATG is open for some time the business infrastructure will fill in around it, softening the desolation of Blubber Hollow, such as the long-abandoned derelict Salem Oil & Grease factory, just behind ATG in the Street View photo. For those enterprising individuals hoping to ride the wave of pot mania there are three available storefronts in the North River Apartments (Salem Market occupies the fourth slot, the one nearest to ATG).

Also today comes news of a proposed trolley link between Peabody Square and Salem Depot, following the existing freight line that can be seen in the photo passing between ATG and the ruins of Salem Oil & Grease (thin grey line in the map above). Imagine, a trolley stop directly in front of a pot shop. No other city in the world could boast of such a conjunction.


Calamitous end to Webb expansion plans in Blubber Hollow

The news was expected but shocking all the same.

F. W Webb axes expansion plans
F.W. Webb future unknown. Company’s place in Salem, and plans for site, both in doubt

This blog called it a year ago.

Looking into the downturned faces of Webb management as they and their company were demeaned and impugned by resident after resident in the interminable City Council hearings, it is the expressed opinion of this blog writer that F.W. Webb and Salem are not long for each other.

Sad History

First some background. Universal Steel, a firm in the business of stripping and recycling steel, went out of business decades ago. Failure to pay taxes for many years led to the City of Salem eventually appropriating the site. Stripping steel involves toxic chemicals, much of which was left on the site in rusted leaking barrels. In 2012 when plans were made to build a MBTA parking garage across Bridge St the site was cleared, subjected to an EPA-approved remediation, and blacktopped to be a temporary replacement parking while the garage was constructed. The parking garage opened Oct 2013 just in time for Halloween, and the temporary Universal Steel lot was no longer needed.

Then came the matter of what to do with the site. Several Requests For Proposals (RFPs) gathered exactly zero interest. Unsurprising. Beyond the potential remediation costs, the site sits in the flood plain of the North River and is regularly flooded (see photo) and so will need massive up-grading before anything can be built. Distasteful as it may be to consider, the repeated floods likely washed away most of the toxic waste long before EPA-mandated remediation.

Flooded Bridge St

This past winter. FW Webb building at left, Universal Steel parking lot just beyond, under water

Then there’s the hurdle of exclusionary zoning for the site, meaning endless rezoning petitions to get anything respectable built. All in all, a development clusterfuck.

So stood the matter until a chance luncheon meeting between city of Salem officials and FW Webb managers. Webb was looking to replace the century-old decaying warehouse that’s housed its plumbing supply business for decades. Salem pitched the idea of expanding right next door. Webb, sitting as it does behind Federal St, knew of the long-held hostility of the Federal St Neighborhood Assn. (FSNA) to any development anywhere near Federal St, appearances be damned. Egad, this year FSNA tried both to shut down the annual Halloween kiddie carnival AND Xmas tree sales. Notwithstanding their long-standing opposition to placing the new Senior Center along Bridge St, which opened this year regardless.

Assurances (not promises) were made that FSNA opposition could be sidestepped, and so Webb jumped in. The RFP was edited to be specific for Webb (a rewrite that was later taken by FSNA as evidence of a corrupt conspiracy, but was really no more than lubricating the paperwork), Webb hired an architect to draw up preliminary plans, and so the development proposal went forward.

Needed for the proposal to go forward was approval by the City Council of a zoning change for the site from residential to commercial. That’s where all hell hit the fan. In interminable meetings throughout the summer of 2016 the FSNA trod out in force and followed the “spaghetti” plan of disruption (throw everything against the wall and see what sticks).

  • It was “out of character for the neighborhood”. Never mind that the neighborhood was a fetid industrial wasteland for centuries. Bridge St today is festered with body shops and warehouses, intermingled with decrepit houses. A modern building, coupled with site remediation and Bridge St improvements, would have been a grand step up, not down, for the “character for the neighborhood”.
    North River 1885

    The FW Webb site 150 years ago. Highly polluted North River lined with tanneries and factories


  • Beckford Way (once it was discovered underneath all the overgrowth) is a “historic” street requiring the utmost “preservation”. Never mind that the stairs up to River St are too deteriorated to walk upon. Never mind that as part of the project Webb would have rebuilt the stairway, giving pedestrian access for the first time in a century.
  • Digging at the site would unleash hellish hounds of toxic waste into the air. Never mind that the EPA inspectors had certified that the site was clean. Who believes the EPA anyway? Never mind that toxic fluids had been leaking out of rusted barrels for decades, long washed into Salem Sound by periodic flooding (see photo above).
  • Something about commercial trucks making noise during nighttime deliveries. Really, that was the best you got? You live in a city. Next to a railroad freight yard. You want spooky midnight desolation move to a farm in the country.
  • The site would be better and more profitable if retained as an overflow lot for the MBTA garage across Bridge St. That is what the FSNA finally settled upon, and has been going with to this day.

Since a parking lot in perpetuity is the plan of the FSNA, it behooves to devote the rest of this post to uncover the fatuity of that plan. Recounting the sad history of the FW Webb expansion plans will resume in the next post in this series.

Sad Parking

That the lot could remain a paying parking lot in perpetuity falls into the embrace of imaginary. There’s enough of that in national politics. It ought to be bled out of local politics.

Do the math. At $4/day one to two dozen cars daily, which is all the site gets, means at most $100 revenue per day (most days closer to $50, but trying to be generous here). Even that is suspect, as a walk-around finds just half the cars displaying receipts in windshields, meaning half don’t pay. Compliance is haphazard. Twenty work days a month gives $2000 revenue per month, tops. Subtract costs of attendant visits, collecting and depositing cash payments, regular removal of litter and trash, lighting, weed-whacking, repairs, snow removal, drain clearance, and more, easily totals more than $2K/mn. Egad, Plowing a 1+ acre lot in one blizzard costs more than that, and as all know Massachusetts suffers 3-4 grand storms annually.

Essentially the lot registers at negative revenue, to the tune of $1000s a month. And that’s operating revenue, not even accounting for lost tax revenue (see below). Then there is the considerable amortization costs of having graded and paved over the site. In the Salem budget parking structure debts are lumped together, but $20K per annum seems in line for amortization.

All told Salem taxpayers pick up operating losses in the low six figures. Taxpayer subsidized parking lot indeed.

Changes afoot

Parking rates at the Salem and nearby MBTA garages are getting adjusted downward. It’s an effort by the MBTA to try to boost lower than expected occupancy rates. The Salem garage rarely goes north of 2/3 occupancy, outside of the special month of October. Seems like original occupancy projections never figured in Uber & Lyft, e-bicycles, e-scooters, e-mopeds, and whatever other disruptive micro-mobility transportation technology is coming over the (e)-bridge. Fares on the Bridge St. lot will have to drop correspondingly, so the operating deficit will get yet larger. The only reason to park at the lot at all, given that the T garage across Bridge Street is never full (outside of October), is to save a buck. For some commuters that’s real money.

Here’s a money-saving tip to Salem commuters still too timid to embrace e-transportation and still anchored to their personal automobile. The Beverly garage (two miles north) and Lynn garage (four miles south) charge only $2 for all day parking. Drive a little further, save real money.

Sad Tax Revenue

Travelling down Bridge St. first up is the current Webb building at 295 Bridge (~$25,000 annual tax revenue on a 29,000 sq. ft. property). The City of Salem parking lot, next door at 297-305 Bridge St is twice as large (54,000 sq. ft.) and of course pays $0 tax now, but if built on would be expected to provide twice as much tax revenue, say $50K. Next is the Beckford Way footpath, only discovered during the hearings, cleared of overgrowth and made walkable for the first time in generations. It must be retained because … reasons. Little appreciated is that Webb also owns the next lot at 311 Bridge, once the Alpha used car lot, and now mostly used to store commercial vehicles. That 17K sq. ft lot currently pays $11.4K in taxes.

So when (not even going to bother with ‘if’) FW Webb leaves, emptying three lots along Bridge St covering 2.3 acres, Salem loses an aggregate (and lowball) estimated $86K in annual tax revenue. An enormous bite.

What about October?

As all in Salem knows, the month of October is when businesses make enough money to carry them through the rest of the year. Ditto for municipal parking, when parking rates are raised and there’s not a parking space to be found for a mile around downtown. So how does the Universal Steel lot fare in this “special” month? Well, it’s such a “special” place that on weekends and holidays parking rights get turned over to select Salem High School student groups (football team, music dept., etc) for charitable fundraising.

Universal Steel lot capacity

Universal Steel lot on a “regular” weekend

The eager students are able to fill the entire lot (112 spaces) at $20/space, raising a formidable $2200+ per day, the plus coming from turnover. On October weekdays the lot returns to its pitiable 12-15 spaces occupied.  So no, there’s no benefit to the City of Salem during the “special” month.

Sad Work Around

Here’s another commuter tip to consider. Parking in the Webb commuter lot is already free nights, weekends, and holidays. Not so for the parking garage in the MBTA garage across Bridge Street, which has electronic toll gates to keep parkers honest. On weekdays the lot attendant comes to check payments after 9 am, but not everyday, likely no more than once or twice a week, just enough to keep commuters honest. Given the low occupancy rate it’s just not worth the effort for the attendant to show up frequently; it would only raise costs without an attendant rise in revenue (see what I did there). There’s a better than 50-50 chance that if you park in the morning without paying that you can park all day for free. Even if not a gambling morning driver, afternoons, nights, weekends, and holidays are all free, so consider a later start to the workday.

297 Bridge St Universal Steel lot

Note the high Occupancy. And Google StreetView photo taken autumn 2017, the “special crowded” season in Salem

At first the City of Salem, realizing that the revenue stream could not come close to covering costs, removed the payment kiosks and kept the Universal Steel lot free after the parking garage opened. Once T officials pointed out that the free parking lot was drawing paying customers from the newly opened garage, the payment kiosks were returned. Occupancy of the lot went way down. The garage itself rarely goes north of 2/3 occupancy, outside of the special month of October.

And here’s a last commuter tip. If you do park in the Bridge St lot take any space in the uncrowded lot except spaces along the wall of the FW Webb building. Cursory examination finds many cracks in the brick wall of the decrepit building. Those who park along the wall are apt to return from a hard day at work in Boston to find their car decorated in bricks.


Construction in Blubber Hollow. November Update.

With the new Salem Senior Center completed and open, and the neighboring Gateway Center on temporary (hopefully) hiatus, there are only two construction projects in the Gallows Hill / Blubber Hollow neighborhood, Ice Cream Way beside the North River and River Rock Residences at the former Flynn Tan factory sight.

The Ice Cream Way site between Mason and Commercial Streets will eventually consist of four buildings, all containing condos for sale. The first building of seven townhouse condos, incorporating a two-family unit that once sat at the edge of the site, is complete and ready for sale, sales that should get easier now that pavement and not mud fills the space in front. Conversion of the creamery building itself, to contain ten two-story condo units, is well underway, the building buttoned-up and interior finishing ongoing. Framing of the third angle-shape building of six townhouses finished in November, installation of windows and siding proceeding apace. The fourth and final building of six townhouses awaits finishing of the creamery conversion, when construction vehicles and supplies now filling the space can be moved aside to make room for new building. All units, duplex and townhouse, should be built and sold by end of summer 2019.

Site Plan Ice Cream Way

Ice Cream Way

Following the North River upstream come to River Rock Residences, which consists of three buildings. The 48-unit luxury apartment house is essentially complete, with touch-up on the facade and interior trim all that’s left to complete. Curbing and sidewalks going in, but units not yet open for rental, waiting for the rest of the project to catch up, although applications are being accepted. Framing on the front six townhouses along Boston St finally completed last month, windows and roofing and siding ongoing. These should be available for sale by spring, though shoppers can browse floor plans and amenities online.

The real news is that construction of the second set of townhouse condos on the other side of the site along Goodhue St, where once sat an auto body and a motorcycle shop, has commenced. Since the townhouses are getting built along the edge of unstable rock ledge, an ordinary concrete foundation would not do, explaining why through the middle of November a noisy pile driver pounded massive 50-foot steel beams into the ledge.


A steel beam gets “shaken down”

The beams are all in place, the forms ready to receive a massive concrete pour. Perhaps by the time of the next construction update on this blog the framing will have begun, so that there will be a glimpse of what the five four-story (three story on the Boston St side) townhouses will become.


Future townhouses along Goodhue St

Construction on another planned project, the Gateway Center at the corner of Bridge and Boston Streets, should have begun by now, but has been placed on indefinite pause. Word is that financing has become problematic. In the meantime, the backyard shed on the site, put there as a placeholder to ensure that the developer retains rights under the condo association that controls the property, has keeled off its wood pallet foundation. Rights apparently would  forfeit if there were no structure on the site.


Weeds, a forlorn shed, broken fencing – all that exist so far of the much-heralded Gateway Center





New Businesses Opening Up on Gallows Hill

A new occult store, a type of retail shop so common in Salem, has opened up at 96 Boston St, the Botanica del Carmen, in the historic Daniel Frye Tavern & Inn building built c. 1790 by the incomparable Samuel McIntire. Offering not only botanical herbs, not only Reiki massage, but religious art of all kinds: half-man half-beast figurines, half-woman half-beast figurines, half-man half-woman (hermaphrodite) figurines, even half-man half-woman half-beast figurines. It’s actually more a replacement occult shop than a truly new one, replacing the Dark Moon occult store that once filled this storefront, which despite offering all sorts of “dark art” services, even computer repair, couldn’t make a go of it. Perhaps with the addition of botanical herbs Botanica del Carmen can make a go of it in the occult business sector, though this makes two botanical shops in Gallows Hill, what with Botanica Santa Marta inside the La Loma bodega down the road at 34 Boston St.

Botanica del Carmen 96 Boston

Botanica del Carmen, 96 Boston St, Gallows Hill

Another recent opening is the Urban Underground sneaker store, operating since August at 408 Essex St, next to the historic Mandee’s Pizza. Purists may argue that Essex St is not Gallows Hill, but it’s one storefront removed from Boston St, so cut some slack. Offering a gazillion sneakers of all colors, styles and brands, as well as hoodies, shirts, bags, caps and other accessory paraphernalia. An opening of a Urban Lifestyle shop like this, apparently the only such shop in the North Shore, marks a move in a new direction for Gallows Hill, long schizophrenic between the suburban lifestyle (single-family homes on spacious lots, social isolation, automobile mandatory, uniformity) represented by Witchcraft Heights and the urban lifestyle (dense living units, intense social interactions, alternative transportation modes, diversity) represented by central Salem neighborhoods like The Point.No automatic alt text available.

Business so far has been booming for the start up, with clients coming in from all over the North Shore, not just Salem. With the ATG marijuana shop about to open a few blocks away, yet more clients are sure to be drawn to Urban Underground.

Wishing success to both new businesses!